Our historic (school)house: when truth is stranger than fiction

When talking about mystery novels with The Dear Man a few years ago, I commented that one of the tropes is that detectives in books often live in really cool, unconventional houses.

Think Kinsey Millhone in that rockin’ garage apartment that feels like the inside of a boat.

Or Travis McGee, who actually lives on a houseboat.

Or Magnum, P.I. (OK, that’s 80s TV, but stay with me), who lives in the guest house of that grand estate in Hawaii.

Or my favorite literary abode: Scot Harvath’s home in an 18th century stone (former) church and rectory owned by the U.S. Navy. Who wouldn’t want to live there?

Detectives even get amazing office spaces: Walt Longmire has an office in an old Carnegie library, and Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro run their business from an old church belfry.*

It was one of those things that I thought only happened in books.

Until it happened to us.

We bought an old schoolhouse.

Actually, we bought half of it. There’s an 18-inch-thick brick wall that runs right down the center of the place, and we’ve bought the side we loved best.

The school was built in 1906—and while it’s been remodeled, it still has serious old-building character—and we get to live in it!

I love love love old houses. All my life (except during college, library school, and the first year after) I’ve lived in old houses, and I love their charm and their quirks and their history. Ever since childhood, I’ve adored sitting in my old house and thinking about the former residents reading the newspaper and finding out about the sinking of the Titanic. Or women winning the right to vote. Or the end of a war.

It makes me feel connected.

With this place, it’s an even twistier path to the past, because we’re envisioning students and teachers and the principal, living out their school days here. The other night, we were talking about “duck and cover” during the Cold War and I said, “Oh my gosh. They did that right here.”

So when it comes to listing my favorite things about this house, I get stuck. There’s the history, there’s the delight of living in a school, and there’re those brick walls, and the floating staircase, and the 8-foot tall windows, and the original doors and transoms…

We’re flat-out in love with this place. Sometimes we just sit and gaze at it. Often we don’t want to leave.

What’ll actually launch us out of the house: We’ve made an appointment at the local historical museum, where we’re gonna dig into our schoolhouse’s history. We’re hoping to find photos.

In the meantime, we’ve got a little chalkboard that says Comfort and here we are… reading and cooking and watching the cat and decoding the secrets of our schoolhouse and talking about all the things…

It’s no mystery where you’ll find us.

So tell me…. Has there ever been a point in your life when you’ve said, “I thought this only happened in books…”


Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone series)

John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee series)

Brad Thor (Scot Harvath series)

Craig Johnson (Walt Longmire series)

Dennis Lehane (Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro series)

Mysteries I can’t wait to be published

Anyone else look at their library hold list just for thrills and anticipation? So do I. And right now I have such good stuff on the horizon, I hardly know what to do with myself.

Currently, my hold list is filled with pre-pub mysteries, and I feel like a kid again, waiting for the next library visit so I can stock up on Nancy Drews.

Here’s the grown-up version…



Depth of Winter by Craig Johnson

I love Craig Johnson, and we all know it. Every June for years, I’d have a super happy moment when his latest book was released and my hold came in at the library. This year, he’s got a September 4 publication date, and that means my June is gonna feel a little bereft. But… I’m skilled at anticipation, so things are gonna work out just fine.


Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King

It’s another Mary Russell mystery, and there are few things more delightful than that. Especially since June 12 is its pub date, so June is rescued after all!


The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz has been hitting the mystery scene hard these last few years, with the magnificent Magpie Murders and his Sherlock Holmes novels, Moriarty and House of Silk. Now he’s beginning a new series with The Word Is Murder, which drops August 24.


The three of them are enough to keep me flapping in anticipation all season.


So, my fellow readers… What pre-pub books are you looking forward to?


Magpie Murders: rather a perfect mystery

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

3 words: character-driven, absorbing, metafiction

Sometimes you come across a book that’s a perfectly perfect example of its genre.

This is one of them.

If you like classic mysteries, but also like a modern take on a classic… this book is gonna make you very happy.

There’re all kinds of good things going on here.

First: a book within a book. And I kid you not: I got so absorbed in the book-within-the-book that I totally forgot it was part of a larger narrative.

Then the other story line came in, I had a moment of, “Oh, yeah!” followed by a moment of disruption, and then man did I fall into the wider story.

The story-within-the-story is a classic whodunit written by a fictitious author. It’s told in the third person, and it’s a completely engaging story of a 1950s murder in an English village that’s filled with all kinds of believable characters. There’s a larger-than-life famous detective on the case. Very Agatha Christie.

The wider story is also a classic whodunit, but told in the first person, by the current-day editor of the fictitious author. The fictitious author, who recently died a possibly suspicious death. She’s an unlikely detective, but as a mystery aficionada, she’s picked up some skills. And she brings us along for the journey.

It’s suspenseful, it’s literary, there’s a plot that’ll keep you turning the pages, and there are characters to care about.

Perfection, I’m telling you.

Brought to us by the guy who brought us Foyle’s War on the BBC, as well as the excellent Alex Rider spy fiction series for tweens (which I read along with my nephew, and which I liked way more than I expected).

I’m impressed.

Give this book a whirl if you like… classic whodunits, books about authors and book publishing, books within books, British mysteries, Louise Penny

What’s the best mystery you’ve read this summer?

Fireplace + coffee + mystery = Happy Unruly

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King


You know how I wrote about how the Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series was raging on at full force?


Still happening!

Only more so.


I had some of the happiest reading moments while playing hooky from my assigned reading and diving into this book instead. I’m telling you: bliss.


Here’s why:


– Shipboard setting. Man, I’m a sucker for a book set on the high seas. And this book starts with Mary and Holmes studying Japanese onboard a ship, tutored by a
young Japanese woman who turns out to have some serious secrets. The picture of them, toiling side by side to learn a challenging language, is really rather


– Japanese setting. King brings Japan and its culture to life, so it’s like being there without the discomforts of travel.


– King’s writing style. I’m telling you, it’s such a doggone comfort to relax in the care of a skilled writer who does all the work so you don’t have to. I just read and luxuriated in her smoothly constructed sentences and nearly purred.


– The delightful blend of zippy action and the mundane pleasures of daily life. Here’s a scene from onboard the ship:

“The damp pages turned. For two hours, absolutely nothing happened: no shots rang out, no tusked boars rampaged down the decks, no flimsy aeroplanes beckoned. Normal life can be extraordinarily restful.” (p. 22)


(I’m purring again.)


This book felt pretty much perfect to me. It might be a happy enough reading memory to tide me over until the next installment.




Christmas in October

Wait for Signs by Craig Johnson

3 words: warm, manly, decent

came early this year. In two ways.
this book is made up of short stories, thereby fulfilling my Book Bingo
requirement and getting me unstuck.
most of the stories take place around Christmastime. 
Normally, this would make
me puke, but we’re talking Craig Johnson here, so puking is out of the
question. He keeps it too wry and too real for me to be having an attack of
“way too heartwarming” seasonal nausea.*
Though, I
gotta say: some of these stories (one of them especially—“Slick-Tongued Devil”**)
prompted some emotions. Johnson’s getting a pass, because when he writes stories
that make a person feel sad or grateful or nostalgic, he never cheapens any of
the emotions and he keeps it all free of smarm. (I can’t stand smarm.)
The beauty
of these stories is that they fill in some of the gaps between the novels in
the Walt Longmire mystery series. They’re vignettes that show us some everyday
occurrences and also some turning points in Walt’s life. And they illustrate the
tough, kind, decent man he is. (Yes, I know I’m talking about a fictional
character as though he’s real.)
They say
that when you read short stories, you should savor every word. With Craig
Johnson’s books and stories, I do that by necessity; I don’t want to miss a
single syllable. 
Christmas, y’all.
*A third
thing that was Christmas-y: I was reading this book while on a dream vacation
with people I love.
one almost made me cry.

Best new mystery of the year

Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

3 words:
rural, realistic, introspective
guys! There’s a new guy on the block, and he’s written one heck of a debut
And he
says it’s planned to be the first of four books in a series about Henry Farrell,
so even better.

to love: A first-person narrator who’s darn unusual—a mid-level cop (a township
police officer) who’s somewhere between a sheriff and a rank-and-file cop. So
his perspective is an interesting one.

And he’s
an introverted young widower who feels alienated from the people around him. 
So: also somewhat unusual.
And the
dude plays the fiddle.
other thing that sets him apart is that he’s very much an everyman, underdog,
unheroic protagonist. Things get messy, and he makes mistakes.
So what
I’m saying is: Henry Farrell is a realistic main character.
else to love: The book is set in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, so
it has the rural feel of Craig Johnson’s and Donald Harstad’s mystery series
about rural police officers. And there’s fracking, which has set neighbors
against one another because of differing views on the issue. And money.  
So: the
plot. A decaying body is discovered on the property of an elderly recluse and
then Farrell’s deputy is killed. And the investigation reveals all kinds of
secrets people never would’ve guessed about the neighbors they thought they
knew so well.
good: The details, such as the birdwatcher/photographer coroner, who stops
while on a business call to admire the birds. And Farrell’s appreciation of the
small pleasures; he’s pleased by their new walkie-talkies. It all makes the
book feel more real. 
wait for book 2.  

Child’s Play

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

3 words:
creepy, gripping, grim
I was
almost too scared to read Jo Nesbo. I kept thinking Nordic noir… that’s some
depressing stuff. Then you throw in creepy serial killers with inventive ways
of dispatching people, and yeah. I’m running in the opposite direction.
But he
was on the genre study assignment list, so I made inquiries of Nesbo readers
and learned that The Snowman “isn’t that
bad.” And I took a deep breath and downloaded the eBook.
I was traveling when I was reading it, and I got so hooked into the story, it
ran down the battery of my iPhone. When I got off the plane, I had to find a
power outlet fast.
made me rather happy.
we’re talking here about a plot that won’t let go of you. Twists and turns and
all that good stuff.
But we’re
also talking about some seriously disturbing murder action. I had to skim over
sections (I did that thing where I un-focus my eyes) in order to be able to
handle it. (I’m a feeble thing when it comes to messed-up murderer characters.)
Harry Hole, the police detective who is at the center of the series, leads a
life so miserable, he’d have to be a Scandinavian police officer.
my darlings. This stuff is grim.
those who can handle Luther and
for those who became hooked on the Stieg Larsson books.


The Lovers by John Connolly
doing that thing I sometimes do. 
Yes, I’m over-preparing for something. 
makes me happier. (Lots of things make me happier. Cadbury Eggs, for example.)
here’s the thing: I’m leading a session of a mystery genre study soon, so I’m
It makes me feel virtuous. 
It makes me feel confident. 
It makes me
feel resourceful.
it makes me feel a bit tired.
mostly, virtuous.
And I’m
reading authors I feel like I should’ve read years ago: Walter Mosley, George
Pelecanos, John Connolly.
today we’re talking Connolly. Not Michael, but John. The guy who sets his
mysteries in Maine.
And I
picked a good one: The Lovers. For
me, it was the perfect fit because this is the one where private investigator
Charlie Parker looks into his own family’s past to discover the reason for his
father’s death. And I love that mystery-from-the-past stuff.
And Parker
is a fairly typical p.i.—tough as nails, independent to a fault, and stubborn.
I like p.i.’s.
thing that surprised me was the element of the supernatural. Parker’s wife and
daughter were murdered (earlier in the series), and their ghosts are present. Somehow
Connolly makes this work, even though I’m usually curmudgeonly about such
Parker is a guy you can’t help liking. And that’s probably the most important
appeal element in a mystery series: you gotta like the main character, or the
whole thing’s sunk.
So if
I had way more time, I’d read more books in this series. But back here in my
own little reality show, let’s face it: ain’t never gonna happen. But that’s nothing against
Connolly, just my beautiful, busy life and my devotion to other series who got
there earlier and staked a claim on me. 
Sorry, Charlie.

That’s why I’m Easy*…

Cinnamon Kiss by Walter Mosley
Rawlins is a name I’ve known for years now, but I didn’t make his acquaintance
until just recently. I’ve been reading/listening up a storm in preparation for
a genre study, and it was time to read Walter Mosley. It was overdue, actually,
but I got there eventually.
Now, I’m
a sucker for first-person narratives, especially if that narrator is a private
investigator. So I was pretty sure I was gonna like this book, but I was
surprised by how quickly I was pulled into the story.
listened to the audiobook, which is read by Michael Boatman, who makes a
wonderful Easy Rawlins.
1966, and Easy is in need of a lot of money, and fast. His daughter is sick,
and he needs $30,000 to send her to a specialist in order to save her life.
And it’s
in the midst of this type of pressure that he accepts a job to track down a guy
in San Francisco (Easy’s an L.A. man himself). And he’s also considering helping
his best friend with a heist, because where else is a guy gonna get that kind
of money that fast?
this book, there’s so much going wrong in his life, Easy could be singing the
blues. But he’s a fighter, and I was rooting for him. And his little girl.
If you’re
a mystery reader who loves a p.i. novel where things keep getting messier and
messier (this is most p.i. novels, I realize) yet the detective carries on
valiantly against the odds, then this book will have you humming with pleasure.


Second time around, Part 2

The Sweetness at the Bottom of
the Pie
Alan Bradley

reading saves the day.

started this book once before, and I bailed on about page 2. (I do this a lot.)

this case, it was because the main character, an 11-year-old girl, was being
held captive. And I just didn’t buy it.

course, when I read the book for a genre study, I discovered that her horrible
older sisters had locked her up somewhere in their big old pile of an English country
house. And that just made sense.

But I
discovered, as I continued to read, that suspension of disbelief remained a strict
requirement for reading this book.

mean, seriously: How many 11-year-old genius chemists with a penchant for murder-solving
do you really know? And, as the series continues, what is the likelihood that
she’ll continue to stumble upon poisoning deaths in her little village?

So you
see what I mean.

I just might end up reading more of this series, and here’s why:

voice of the character is just plain delightful. Here’s a sample sentence:

“As I
was making my way up the stairs, Dogger materialized suddenly above me on the
landing with a candleholder that might have been snapped up at an estate sale
at Manderley.” (p. 224)

here’s my coping mechanism: I pretend Flavia is actually a genius 15-year-old.
It’s still a stretch, but it works a bit better for me.

writing style—and his creation of the very odd de Luce family—are probably
going to keep me coming back for more.